A Few Of My Favorite Things

When Joe and I carried the Christmas storage containers into the house from the attic and shed, it was like getting re-acquainted with some old friends. After all, it’s been two years since we’ve seen each other.

Without going into the details, let’s just say that Joe and I erased Christmas 2020 from the calendar. Between his father’s deteriorating health and COVID anxieties, all was not merry and bright. It was, in fact, dark and dreary. With the rest of the world on hyper-happy, our sadness felt heavier — and no amount of holiday decorations could lighten our moods.

Earlier this year, the Fates did not allow us all to be together once more. Joe’s father passed away in February. While we find comfort in knowing he’s no longer suffering, there’s also the need to reconnect with traditions that were placed on hiatus. In a move to not feel so bad, Joe and I unboxed and unwrapped a few of our favorite things.

My favorite tradition, by far, is the Christmas tree. When we lived in New York, we always had a real tree, and we did the same when we first arrived in Florida. There’s a big difference when buying a real tree in NY as compared to buying one in South Florida. Shopping for a tree in a tent in 80-plus degree weather, while wearing shorts and listening to “White Christmas” felt like wearing an ugly Christmas sweater that’s sewn incorrectly. It never really fits the way it’s supposed to — so it’s an artificial tree for us.

This is the 33rd Christmas Joe and I have celebrated — and I know this because of the lone white ornament on a tree of red ornaments. I purchased it to commemorate our first Christmas together and it has its place on a lower branch in the back of the tree. It’s our little secret — although, you now all know.

Our first Christmas decoration investment was this Weihnachtspyramide, which I have translated to mean the Flying Nativity. With enough heat rising through the propellers, this thing can really spin! We found it in a Long Island pool store that used to switch out its summer stock for a holiday hodgepodge of decorations, trees, and lights. (This was so long ago that customers could bring in strands of lights and have the bulbs tested and replaced.)

Besides all of the spinning parts and its Old Worldness, I love its smell.  I’m not sure if the wood or packaging material was treated with incense, but as soon as I open the box, it’s as if the Christmas season has announced its arrival.

This is Grace Jones. Joe’s sister made this ceramic head long before I entered the picture. He referred to the head as Grace Jones. I continued it — and the Santa hat with the jingle bell on the end belongs to Grace — and no other ceramic head can claim it. Ever.

Nearby, is a small bowl holding a collection of my grandmother’s ornaments. I cherish these vintage glass ornaments. Like her, these are the things that can never be replaced.

The under-the-tree stuff is a game of “I Spy,” a collection of things that hold special meanings to us. . .

There’s the small Christmas book, The Magic of Christmas, my Aunt Pat gave me when I was kid. At the time, she worked at the Richmond Hill Savings Bank in Queens, NY — when banks actually gave things away! I’ve spent hours reading these classic Christmas stories and poems and staring at the illustrations.

When Joe was a boy living in Coney Island, he and his grandmother walked down the stairs of the final stop on the D-Line. At ground level, there were various shops under the elevated subway, one of which sold Christmas and novelty items. That’s when this Santa Claus (above, to the right of the book) — thanks to Nana — entered Joe’s life. . .  and he’s been with Joe (and now us) ever since.

Speaking of Nana, a few years later she surprised Joe with a Wishnick Santa. He may not be the Clausiest of Santas, but he’s sort of adorable in his own big-eyed way.

Front and center, is the nativity. My mother made the figurines in ceramics and my father built the crèche using branches from a tree in their front yard, my childhood home, and modeled it after their own crèche.

Of course, a list of our favorite things would not be complete without mentioning whiskers on kittens — or in this case, Muffola the cat. She’s never made an attempt to climb into the branches or knock over anything. Instead, she’s content to lounge on a prime piece of tree skirt real estate, behind all the stuff and under the lights.

Once fully decorated, its difficult to not be reflective this holiday season. So much has happened to us in the past few years that it’s a little difficult to not feel battered and exhausted. Now, supply chain issues are the latest source of anxiety, stoking fears that the holidays will be ruined.

Maybe, just maybe, this is a chance to return to a simpler Christmas and to cherish what we have. One of the simplest Christmas treats I have is this musical matchbox, an impulse buy with a wind up key. Slide open the box and music plays and skaters spin around the pond. Just a few seconds of this and I’m content.

My wish for all of you is that you find peace and strength this holiday season, that you find comfort in your favorite things (let me know in the comments what they are), and that you and yours have a happy and very, very healthy 2022.

A quick aside… After writing this post, tornadoes tore through several states and I can’t help thinking of so many people who lost so much in a matter of minutes. My heart and thoughts are with all of you. 

Repost: And So This Is Christmas

I used to love the news. Over the past several years, though, I’ve found that it brings me more stress and anxiety than information. As a result, I’ve done my best to avoid it. Every so often, though, a news story breaks through my wall — and one such item was the recent school shooting in Oxford, MI, which — according to CBS News — was the 28th school shooting of 2021. (There were 10 in 2020. Thank you, COVID.)

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Twenty Years Ago & Today

I placed September 11 on a shelf twenty years ago, and I have tried very hard to keep it there over the past two decades. The news media, though, have other ideas to force me to take it out and relive it. Because this is a major anniversary, they have uncovered new angles, new footage, and new ways of delivering this nightmare — and I understand why. We’re not supposed to forget.

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Not-So-Wordless Wednesday: Holding On

This is a baby staghorn fern. I came across it recently while doing some therapeutic weeding — therapeutic for me, not so much for the weeds. I was actually surprised to see it because the closest mature staghorn is in the across-the-street neighbor’s backyard.

Plus, it was clinging to stone. In the wild, these tropical epiphyte ferns use their roots to grab tightly onto the bark of a tree while its fronds take in the needed moisture and nutrients. This little guy, though, was holding onto the rough, hard surface of a paver used as a retaining wall for a raised bed.

The more I considered its journey from a spore drifting on wind currents to its determination to hold onto something — anything — solid, the more I realized that this was the best way to illustrate my absence for the past few months.

Without going into detail, the bulk of 2020 saw Joe, myself, and his family protecting ourselves from COVID while also caring for the health of his father. Dad was diagnosed in May with malignant melanoma.

In a normal world, life is a rollercoaster. COVID, though, seemed to stifle and slow many of the ups while adding speed and dangerous curves to the downs. By the end of 2020 and into 2021, Dad needed round-the-clock care. On February 3, he passed away as a result of his weakened state, which itself was the result of two surgeries and general anesthesia that seemed to exacerbate his Alzheimer’s.

Since then, Joe and I have worked at catching up on chores long neglected: AC maintenance, plumbing issues, tree removal and shrub pruning, and that therapeutic weeding.

Through it all, though, we’ve reflected on Dad. He was many things to so many people.  He was a father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, uncle and friend, and coach, referee, umpire, and mentor. To me, he was my father-in-law, a kind, decent, honest, and gentle man who lived life to its fullest. He’s also the man who instilled these same values in Joe, my husband and partner.

I admit that while some days have felt almost normal, other days have been, well, a daze. It was on one such day that I looked up and spotted an orchid blooming way up high on the trunk of a sabal palm, one that I had tied to the tree before I knew anything about how to do that.

At the time, I was told to wait for the flower spike to finish and to just tie it. Climbing a ladder, I slapped the clump of roots — no additional sphagnum moss, no coco-fiber lining to keep things together, no nothing — and sloppily wrapped green floral tape around the orchid and palm trunk, hoping for the best.

It has never bloomed, not once,  since I tied it up there. Some years, it looked as if it was barely alive.

This year, though . . . this year it’s flowering, its roots firmly attached to the trunk. It gave me a reason to get the ladder and climb up to get a closer photo of this miracle on a tree trunk, a reminder that we’re all holding on and we’re all going to be okay.

Bloomin’ Update 64: Harvest Days, SoFlo Style

Sometimes, it’s easy to forget it’s autumn. That has become my annual thought the longer I live and garden in South Florida. I know many plants, even down here, have a season, but it’s not until I see the national weather forecast for the Dakotas, my friend’s pictures of her New England view of painted leaves, and other garden blogs filled with photos of gardens in seasonal transition that I truly realize that the times, they are a-changin’.

It’s at this moment, in a land where most feel there are only two seasons — hot and hotter — that I become more aware of the later sunrises and earlier sunsets, and of the shimmering, golden hue of the sunlight in the late, late afternoon. We were even given a small tease as a weak “cold” front made its down the Florida peninsula for a day, delivering — at the very least — a drop in humidity. Other than that, though, autumn here is pretty much summer.

On the other hand, the combination of these subtle changes and a pandemic that’s kept me firmly planted at home has given me a reason to not only harvest bananas (above), but to also collect seeds and start new plants.

Pride of Barbados

This small flowering tree or tall flowering shrub began as a gift from friends. As hard as I prune it to keep it short, it seems happiest when it’s allowed to fully grow upward. Then, at the top of its stems, clusters of orchid-like flowers bloom. In turn, these are followed by dangling seed pods, which I quickly collect before they pop open so I don’t have a forest of Pride.

One pod I let dry on my potting bench. When I cut it open, I was surprised to find the seeds in an alternating pattern. I’m not sure if this is typical or a quirk of this particular pod. Either way, I was still impressed that nature could produce something so perfect and symmetrical.

I planted some of the seeds. Within days, they sprouted and now I have a pot of seedlings that need to be potted up. I’m still not sure if I’ll plant these when they’re a little older or if I’ll give them away.

Mexican Cotton Plant

One of my favorite plants that I’ve grown is Mexican Cotton Plant. I have mine in a pot, and I’ve always been able to keep it pruned to encourage branching and stronger growth. This year, though, something happened. After flowering, it produced the buds that would eventually open to reveal cotton. That’s when I noticed the leaves dying. My hope was for the plant to live long enough for these buds to mature, but that wasn’t the case.

I harvested the buds and let them dry. In a matter of days, they popped open, revealing the cotton balls. I pulled out the cotton, each piece of fluff covering a seed. These are now planted and I’m waiting for them to sprout.

White African Iris

Last year, a friend gave me some seed pods from his White African Iris. I dried the pod, removed the seeds, and planted them. They are now flowering for the first time.

Crinum Lily

One of my favorite plants is the Crinum Lily. Large and tropical, the plant is related to amaryllis rather than lilies — and it can easily fill a bed with its sword-like leaves. The treat is when they send up a flower spike (above). Within a day, the flower cluster opens even more (below).

They also spread. One way is for the mother bulb to produce pups. These can be separated and then planted. I tend to do this on a regular basis to keep the mother plants looking clean and neat.

The other method is fascinating. When a flower is pollinated, a bulblet forms on the flower spike. As it matures, its weight will either help bend the flower stalk to the ground or it will simply fall off. Recently, while cleaning the Crinums, separating pups, and weeding, I found a bulblet that had fallen to the ground, where it had germinated. At first glance, I thought the withered bulblet was a stone.

King Palm

Normally, when  palm trees produce their inflorescence, Joe cuts them off to prevent becoming overrun with sprouting palm trees everywhere — except this time. I was interested in harvesting seeds from the King Palm, so we let the hull-like structure (peduncular bract) that contains the small flowers remain attached to the tree. The photo above is of another peduncular bract that we cut in half to see how tightly packed the inflorescence is.

After a few weeks, the bract popped open, revealing its multi-branched inflorescence.

In time, the inflorescence branches spread and bees are drawn to the hundreds of small beige flowers.

Back To The Bananas

I realize bananas may not be everyone’s idea of a fall fruit. That title usually belongs to apples and pears and pumpkins. This year, though, the banana plant happened to produce just in time for a fall harvest — and there were lots of bananas. I added them to cereal, shared them with neighbors, froze some for future use, and tried my hand at banana bread for the first time.

My neighbor’s recipe called for loaf pans, but all I had was a Bundt pan — so that’s what it had to be. Not as tasty as my neighbor’s — but all in all, a delicious way to celebrate the season in a SoFlo way.

Garden Secrets of Bunny Mellon Giveaway

I wanted to take a few moments to thank everyone who participated in the recent giveaway of Garden Secrets of Bunny Mellon, by Linda Jane Holden, and to congratulate Carol H. for being the lucky winner!